What’s In Your Food?

There is a big movement among Americans today to go more natural in their eating habits, such as switching to organic, buying local or eating more natural foods, foods that aren’t so processed. I thought it might be interesting to talk about processed foods and why they are so bad for you. Since my blog is about being natural, I thought I’d give you guys one more reason to do it.

I am sure that you are aware of the questions about the safety of many food additives, from food dyes to trans fats. A lot of information about additives has been in the news along with the many scares over food safety. A scare such as the ones we’ve had in recent years may linger in our minds long after researchers find that there’s actually no cause for alarm. It can take years, or even decades, to find out the truth, and sometimes the case is never really closed. So it’s always a good idea to do your research and play it safe when not really sure.

The most well known of all food additives is also the most common. Artificial coloring is in everything we eat and sometimes you have to wonder why. I have a friend who is allergic to red dye #1 and let me tell you the hell she goes through when choosing and preparing her food. That dye is in everything. And I mean that. Food dyes can be found in all processed foods, beverages and condiments. There really isn’t any food that remains it’s natural color. Heck, they even add red to Cherries.

But you should pay attention here because artificial food color is suspected of causing increased hyperactivity in children. Also, the dye Yellow No. 5 has been thought to worsen asthma symptoms. In the 1970s, the FDA famously banned Red Dye No. 2 after some studies found that large doses could cause cancer in rats. So there is no telling what other effects dyes will eventually be found to have.

In 2007, a British study published in The Lancet concluded that consuming artificial coloring and preservatives in food can increase hyperactivity in kids. Scientists have been studying the link between food additives and hyperactivity in children for more than 30 years but the results vary widely. None the less, the results of the 2007 study compelled the European Food Standards Agency to urge companies to voluntarily remove artificial coloring from food products. The FDA here in the US, however, hasn’t changed its opinion on the use of FDA-approved artificial food colors, which they consider to be safe when used properly.

Reports suggesting that the food color Yellow No. 5 might aggravate some people’s asthma symptoms date back to the 1950s. But in most controlled studies, Yellow No. 5 has not been shown to have a significant impact on asthma, according to a review of all known studies, which is updated every year.

If you would rather avoid these dyes and their possible effects, then you should start checking the labels of the food you buy. The following artificial colors are approved for use in food products and must be listed as ingredients on labels:

# FD&C Blue No. 1 (brilliant blue FCF)
# FD&C Blue No. 2 (indigotine)
# FD&C Green No. 3 (fast green FCF)
# FD&C Red No. 40 (allura red AC)
# FD&C Red No. 3 (erythrosine)
# FD&C Yellow No. 5 (tartrazine)
# FD&C Yellow No. 6 (sunset yellow)
# Orange B (restricted to use in hot dog and sausage casings)

Another pervasive additive in all processed foods is high fructose corn syrup. This is a sweetener made from Corn and is cheaper than Sucrose, which is made from Sugar Cane. It is simply added to foods to make them sweet however they are used in many kinds of foods, not just sweets or candies. Most sweetened soft drinks are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.

This particular additive is considered a culprit in our current obesity epidemic. It is generally believed to make people fat and some experts have proposed that people metabolize high fructose corn syrup in a way that raises the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes more than sugar made from sugar cane. Much of the controversy stems from the observation that obesity in the United States and consumption of high fructose corn syrup increased at the same time. But there is generally no proof that it makes people any fatter than sugar does.

And, in fact, it is “just sugar,” as Marion Nestle, PhD, a professor of nutrition and public health at New York University points out. “Biochemically, there’s no difference.”

The high fructose corn syrups commonly used to sweeten foods and drinks are around 55% fructose and 45% gluose. Sucrose (cane sugar) is a double sugar made of fructose AND glucose. Digestion quickly breaks down cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup into fructose and glucose. This is pretty much the same process where it concerns our bodies.

“There’s a little bit more fructose in high fructose corn syrup, but not a lot,” Nestle says. “It doesn’t really make any difference. The body can’t tell them apart.”

The American Medical Association recently stated that there is scant evidence to support the idea that high fructose corn syrup is any worse than cane sugar and that consuming too much sugar of either kind is unhealthy. So, frankly, you should avoid products that are loaded with either sugar or high fructose corn syrup and not fall for the idea that one is better than the other. Both will make you fat.

High fructose corn syrup can easily be found in the list of ingredients on a food label and so can sugar.

Another common additive that people talk about is Aspartame. It is an artificial sweetener known by various brand names, including Equal and NutraSweet. It is also the biggest source of contention among both manufacturers and consumers, with many people claiming a whole range of ill effects, from brain damage to diabetes.

It is a common ingredient, found in every “diet” product on the shelf, having replaced Saccharin years ago when that was found to cause cancer. It is the single most commonly used additive for sweetening diet soft drinks.

As I already said, various health concerns have been raised about aspartame since it was introduced in 1981. Most recently, it has been suspected of causing cancer, much the same as Saccharin. There have also been reports of aspartame causing seizures, headaches, mood disturbances, and reduced mental performance. A study published in 2005 suggested that aspartame could cause leukemia and lymphoma in rats. Another study, published in 1996, argued that an increase in the rate of brain tumors in the United States could be related to consumption of aspartame.

These are all scary claims and as a result, there have been dozens of studies in people and animals to test for effects possibly related to aspartame. The majority of these studies show that things such as headaches, seizures, and mental and emotional problems didn’t occur with aspartame more often than with placebo, even at doses many times higher than anyone would likely ever consume.

There have been many studies over the years and most of the results are inconclusive. Some claim that Aspartame has no effect at all on anyone, does not cause Cancer and is generally believed to be safe by both the FDA and the food industry. However, there are numbers of people, many of whom you can find on the internet, make big claims about the dangers of Aspartame. And some people, like myself, can’t tolerate it because it gives me a stomachache.

If you are concerned about Aspartame and would like to avoid it in your diet, then do not buy “diet” drinks or foods. You can find the product listed simply as “aspartame” on the food or drink label.

And any discussion of additives would have to include Monosodium Glutamate, which has become a sort of “poster boy” for additives that cause reactions in people. Monosodium Glutamate or MSG, by itself, looks like salt or sugar crystals. It is a form of the naturally occurring chemical glutamate. Glutamate doesn’t have a flavor of its own, but it enhances other flavors and imparts a savory taste. Tomatoes, soybeans, and seaweed are examples of foods that have a lot of glutamate naturally. Some scientists say that glutamate, also known as “umami,” is the fifth essential flavor that the human palate can detect, in addition to sweet, salty, bitter, and sour.

MSG is an additive used in many foods. It is famous as an additive in Chinese foods and is the source of the reaction known as “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” which is an allergy to food prepared with MSG. Eating Chinese food makes some people sick.

Many studies over the past four decades have tested the idea that some people may be sensitive to MSG. Most scientists today agree that if there is such a thing as a sensitivity or allergy to MSG, it’s extremely rare. Studies haven’t found any regular pattern of symptoms that could be typical of a reaction to MSG. Also, people are more likely to have symptoms if they’re given MSG crystals than if they eat the same amount of MSG mixed with food.

Although testing has yet to prove that MSG is dangerous, there are some folk that swear they have bad reactions to MSG. People who think they have problems with it should simply avoid it. Look for it on the label of the processed foods you buy.

Some food labels come right out and say that a product contains added MSG. But there are other ingredients that may contain MSG such as “hydrolyzed soy protein” and “autolyzed yeast.” So you should look the label over carefully for these as well.

Another additive of concern is actually a preservative and is not thought of by most when discussing additives. Sodium benzoate is used in a variety of processed food products and drinks. It helps to extend the shelf life of food and is helpful in making sure the food you buy is fresh.

Bit, none the less, it is suspected that sodium benzoate, in addition to artificial food color, may increase hyperactivity in some children. Sodium benzoate in soft drinks may also react with added vitamin C to make benzene, a cancer-causing substance.

The 2007 Lancet study that linked additives with increased hyperactivity included the preservative sodium benzoate. Then, In 2006 and 2007, the FDA tested a sample of almost 200 beverages from stores in different states that contained sodium benzoate and vitamin C. Four of the beverages had benzene levels that were above federal safety standards. The drinks were then reformulated by manufacturers and later deemed safe by the FDA. The agency points out, however, that the tests were limited and that it’s still not known how much benzene consumers could be exposed to from beverages.

You should think about this additive when buying food for your kids if they tend to be hyper. It’s easy to find, it is simply listed as Sodium benzoate among the ingredients on a product label.

And then, for me, this next one is a biggie. Since I no longer eat meat, I don’t find it in my current diet but I became aware of it years ago when I still ate meat. My favorite meats at that time were cured meats like Ham and Bacon. And Sodium nitrite is an additive used for curing meat. And it is usually found in preserved meat products, like sausages and bacon.

It is generally beleived that Sodium Nitrate is implicated in gastric cancer. And there is evidence that sodium nitrite could have been to blame for a lot of the gastric cancers that people had in the past. Until the early 1930s, gastric cancer caused the most deaths of all cancers in the United States. After that, more Americans began to use modern refrigeration and ate less cured meat. Also, producers started to use much less sodium nitrite in the curing process around that time. As these changes took place, deaths from gastric cancer also dropped dramatically.

This theory has been debated for decades, and it is still an open question. Nothing has been proved in a study or in a lab. However, the numbers don’t look good and it might be a good idea not to overdo on Sodium Nitrite. Actually, it might be a good idea to eschew all Nitrites as much as possible.

You can easily find it on the labels of the food you buy. The name, Sodium nitrite will be listed as an ingredient and I see it all the time on the Bacon, Ham and Sausages my roommates still eat.

And the last bad boy of the day is Trans Fat! Oh, I know, you’ve heard so much about this brat that you’d rather not hear it again. But here it is. Trans fats are created when manufacturers add hydrogen to vegetable oil. Trans fats are food additives in the sense that they’re mainly added to the food supply by manufacturing processes, although small amounts of trans fats are present naturally in animal fat. In other words, they are mostly man made.

These “partially hydrogenated oils” are used most often for deep-frying food (like delicious fries and cheese sticks), and in baked goods (like pastries and pies). Margarine and vegetable shortening may also be made with partially hydrogenated oil.

They are bad boys because they are generally believed to increase the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Most scientists now agree that eating trans fats can be very harmful to health. Trans fats have been found to lower people’s HDL (good) cholesterol and raise LDL (bad) cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends getting less than 1% of your daily calories from trans fats. And beleive you me, if you eat like I like to, you’re eating way more than that. I have recently switched over to Olive Oil exclusively and am trying not to eat Margarines. Actually, it hasn’t been too bad.

Look for trans fats on the labels of the foods you buy and try to skip them altogether. All product labels are now required to list the amount of trans fat in a serving. Partially hydrogenated oil may also be listed as an ingredient.

But many fried foods and baked goods that are laden with trans fats are served in restaurants, and they don’t come with nutrition labels. To avoid trans fats, it’s best to limit your overall daily fat intake and eliminate as much as possible the fats from fried or baked goods like french fries, donuts and fried Chicken. And for me, that means frying the Tofu in Olive Oil from now on and not adding Margarine to my Potatoes. The first is easy, the second is really hard. But I believe once you make the change, you don’t notice it anymore… so I’m going to push it along. I hope you do, too. And let me know how you do once you decide to make the changes for a healthier diet and what those changes are!

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1 Response so far

  1. 1

    Tony Brown said,

    I don’t know If I said it already but …Hey good stuff…keep up the good work! 🙂 I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks,)

    A definite great read..Tony Brown

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